Photo: Ryan

A week after booking tickets to Cuba, I came across an article in the New York Times highlighting the food shortages locals faced as a result of increased tourism in Cuba. Reading about locals going without staples, my face flushed with embarrassment. I still wanted to go to Cuba, but I hoped to find a way to lessen my trip’s impact on local people.

Knowing that “helping the Cuban people” is an approved category for Americans to travel to Cuba, I figured it would be straightforward to find ways to give to the Cuban people on my educational trip to Cuba. Quite the opposite is true!

Finding legitimate, budget-friendly ways to help Cubans is tricky, in part due to the low internet usage in the country. There’s just not a lot of information online that’s specific and concrete, especially if you’re on a backpacker’s budget.

If you’re thinking of going to Cuba, and you want to do some good to offset tourism’s harmful side effects, here are 6 legit ways you can help Cubans.

1. Don’t give out trinkets.

Well-meaning travelers might pack school supplies, t-shirts, baseball caps, or other trinkets to give out to local people. As TripAdvisor warns, this is actually a terrible way to help Cubans. Tourists passing through a town for a night have no way of knowing whether the maid in their hotel room is well-off or poor by Cuban standards, or whether the school down the road is inundated with pencils or desperately in need of fresh writing implements. In reality, resort maids have premium jobs in Cuba and don’t need your gifted lotions or cash as much as others.

Handing out trinkets to ease your travel guilt feeds poverty tourism by encouraging locals to beg and look poor in exchange for cash and gifts rather than devote their time to education or entrepreneurship.

2. Vote with your dollars (or your CUC).

If there’s a particular cause that’s important to you, find a way to support that cause through your travel while doing business with Cuban people directly.

Eco-tourism and the environment are important to me. When I came across the Las Terrazas eco-village, located in the Sierra del Rosario biosphere, I decided to stop over for a night on my way to Vinales.

Staying at Las Terrazas allowed me to support an ecological cooperative that employs locals and preserves the environment. By hiring local guides and staying in casa particulares (which we’re doing throughout Cuba) we’re directing our dollars to people, not companies.

3. Find an impactful volunteer program.

Researching direct volunteer opportunities in Cuba is extremely difficult (see lack of internet above). If you want to volunteer with an organization in Cuba, consider spending a day helping out with the Muraleando Community Art Project, a Havana murals project that engages local youth.

If you’d prefer someone else to arrange all the details, and money’s not an issue, consider First-Hand Aid or Global Volunteers. These organizations run comprehensive voluntourism packages that show you the highlights of Cuba while arranging for meaningful service opportunities.

4. Bring public health supplies or books to donate.

Donating supplies to local organizations can be just as meaningful as spending a day volunteering, but it won’t cut into a whole day of your vacation. Havana’s Beth Shalom synagogue runs a free medical clinic where anyone — Jewish or not, Cuban or not — is welcome. They accept donations of first aid supplies and sundries. Since we’re interested in exploring Havana’s Jewish culture, we packed supplies in our day bag to support their clinic.

Havana’s first English language bookstore, Cuba Libro, has given away over 11,000 condoms in just over three years. They’ve also coordinated donations of books to local schoolchildren. Cuba Libro is also helping tackle a widespread problem near to my heart—stray animals. Many Cubans dump their pets when they prepare to go abroad, and most pet owners don’t spay or neuter their animals (Havana Viejo is the only part of the city with a spay/neuter program for strays). If you fall in love with a street dog, something I’ve done many times, the bookstore owners can connect you with Cubans who help get strays adopted. If you can’t come back with a new pet, you can donate to their 501(c)3, which is raising funds to build an animal shelter in Havana.

5. Be a decent person.

An often-overlooked part of helping the Cuban people is actually treating them with respect like you’d give people around the world. Don’t take pity on the maid cleaning your hotel room or the college student guiding your Havana walking tour. And please, do not think that you know how to tackle something you perceive as a problem on your week-long Cuba trip better than the people who live in that reality every day.

After a long day walking around the city avoiding the touts, it can be easy to fall into a trap of seeing Cubans as money-grubbing impoverished people, but the average Cuban is much more resourceful than you or I. They don’t need or want your pity, and they definitely don’t want you to leave generous tips but spread the poverty tourism myths when you go back home.

If you’re considering leaving gifts to make yourself feel better, try being genuinely interested in your Cuban guide instead. The most respectful thing you can do is listen, learn what they really need (big hint: it will be different from what you think they need), and help if you can. Even if you can’t help, listening helps people feel seen and heard, and breaks down stereotypes on both sides.

Sometimes a true cultural exchange that enriches both sides is the best way to help the Cubans you meet on your Cuba tour.

6. Tell your favorite Cuba travel stories when you get back.

In the U.S. especially, there’s a huge knowledge gap about Cuba (I’d recommend The Cuba Libre Story if you want to catch up before your trip). Americans know next to nothing about the country due to the embargo. Most Americans think of desperate Cubans trying to float to over to the Keys, or of starving, brown-skinned, poorly educated people.

By sharing your experience traveling in Cuba, you can break down these cultural stereotypes and create a positive portray of Cuban day-to-day existence. So share your favorite moments in Havana, Varadero, Trinidad, or another Cuban town knowing the information you spread is indirectly helping Cubans.

Who knows, your stories might inspire friends to visit the country (and spread their tourist dollars around) or relatives to donate to charities that help Cubans!

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